Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Assessing Saturday's Metro meltdown

The Post's Dr. Gridlock looks at the Metro meltdown on the day of the rally:

Metro has plenty of experience planning for big events, and transit officials did what they've often done quite successfully. They routinely survey the D.C. scene to figure out what's coming up that could create extra demands on transit service. They talked to the Stewart-Colbert rally planners. They were figuring on a crowd about the size of the one for the Glenn Beck rally on Aug. 28. That day, about 200,000 more trips were taken on Metrorail than on a typical summer Saturday.


Metro did as it usually does and asked the sponsors if they would like to pay for an early opening or extra train service. The rally sponsors didn't do that. That's not at all unusual. The sponsors didn't know what size crowd would show up. People didn't have to register to attend, and they didn't have to pay a fee that could have gone toward paying the extra transportation costs.

To say Metro didn't prepare isn't right. Based on its anticipation of a Beck-sized rally, the transit authority had 20 additional trains ready and eventually placed them in service throughout the system. Also, it had 31 administrative employees spread throughout the system to help first-time riders buy their fares and navigate the system.


Metrorail wound up providing about 475,000 more trips than on a typical Saturday.

So who's fault is it?

Certainly it sounds pretty awful if Comedy Central indeed didn't contribute a penny toward extra train service (most folks won't hear that part, and rather just be angry at Metro). This area needs further reporting. Did Comedy Central end up at least paying some later?

I don't have a ton of sympathy for Metro, but I recognize that their situation is also tricky. Anticipating attendance at a one-time event (as opposed to, say, the annual cherry blossoms) is hard.

Metro could try extensive survey research before events to try to predict the crowd, but that would cost a lot of money; I wonder if putting on more trains is just cheaper. But if you put on more trains than are used, who pays for it? There's no easy answer. Putting on more trains than are used may be needed in the long run, though. The risk of meltdowns like Saturday's is a major one, not only because it leads to a range of problems that day but because of the further risk of a cycle of loss of public confidence in Metro (next time people might just try to drive).

Making the event sponsor preemptively pay for trains that may or may not be used is not a great solution, in part because it will make political rallies harder to hold. Usually you don't have Viacom to pay for it. (Update: or, not pay for it, I should say, as it sounds like was the case).

The only step I'd recommend, and it's a bit drastic, is to end bus parking for these events at the far-out metro stops and RFK stadium. That's just more people on the metro who don't really need to be. Have the buses drive right into town and park (this is what was done, very successfully, for the inauguration). Problem is, you have to close a good chunk of Southwest DC and/or Downtown to fit the buses, which is a pain. But maybe necessary. Again though, you have the problem that you may have taken this drastic step for an event that doesn't end up having as big a turnout as you thought.


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